Philadelphia's Walk On The Wild Side

(August 2019)

Philadelphia is one of the most walkable American cities, providing pedestrians with easy access to all the city has to offer. At least, that's what civic boosters love to claim. But anyone who actually tries to stroll, amble, or promenade through city understands that a Philadelphia walkabout is not as easy as putting one foot in front of the other. And, for anyone who faces mobility challenges, the Philadelphia sidewalks-scape can be harrowing and even life threatening.

A recently filed federal lawsuit claims that Philadelphia's sidewalks are so bad that they violate the law that protects individuals with disabilities. One of the plaintiffs stated, "Philadelphia's failure to create and maintain accessible paths of travel has made it difficult -- and, at times, impossible -- for me to go to work, school, and church, and has prevented me from being able to fully experience life in Philadelphia with my family." That sounds painfully accurate.

Even the most able-bodied pedestrian faces challenges navigating Philadelphia sidewalks. The poorly built or maintained curb ramps cited in the lawsuit are only a small part of the much larger problem. Lax enforcement of laws designed to combat construction disruptions force sidewalk users into street traffic mid-block create hazards. Inadequate application of parking rules leave cars and trucks blocking sidewalks throughout the city. Ill-conceived street-furniture installations place stumbling blocks before pedestrians in too many places.

I became sensitized to these issues as a father pushing a double stroller through Center City streets. I engaged in too many arguments to count with contractors who blocked our path with their scaffolding and building material, with sidewalk-cafe owners whose tables extended too far toward the curb, and with bureaucrats who refused to enforce the laws enacted to keep Philadelphia pedestrians safe. But, because I was able, I was only inconvenienced by these problems.

I could see potential trouble spots ahead and cross in advance. Blind individuals cannot. I was able to schlep my double stroller into the street and lug it back onto the sidewalk after weaving through traffic. Many in wheelchairs cannot. I was able to go blocks out of my way to avoid known trouble spots. Some elderly walkers cannot.

As the lawsuit asserts, the inability for so many to enjoy freedom of movement through the city is a critical issue. But Philadelphia's failures as an unwalkable city for so many are not limited to the inconvenience and the harm to so many who are unable to move freely through the city. Lawsuits resulting from individuals injured due to the city's negligence cost taxpayers millions each year. Each of those dollars could be invested in improving dangerous conditions or enforcing existing laws, but they end up lost to victims and law firms.

Philadelphia is a wonderfully accessible city for those who are able to sidestep the occasional bump in the road, but it can be inconvenient and even life threatening to those who cannot. The scale of the city's blocks are perfect for walking and navigating the city, but too many of those blocks are needlessly full of obstacles that prevent Philadelphians and visitors from enjoying life in our big city. Philadelphia needs a sidewalk czar to coordinate an all-our effort to make this city walkable for all its citizens. The continued failure to do so shows how far our city needs to go to be the walkable Philadelphia we tell the world our city already is.